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Campaign To Purify Internet Of Royal Insults


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Campaign to Purify Internet of Royal Insults

BANGKOK — Down a maze of neon-lit corridors in a massive government complex here is a windowless room where computer technicians scour the Internet for photos, articles, Facebook postings — anything that might be deemed offensive to King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his family.

The technicians work in what is called the Office of Prevention and Suppression of Information Technology Crimes. The government that came to power in July prefers to call it the “war room,” the headquarters of a vigorous and expanding campaign to purify the Internet of royal insults.

The crackdown, which officials have vowed to intensify, is being carried out by a team of 10 computer specialists led by Surachai Nilsang, whose title is cyber inspector.

“The thing that drives us to do our duty is that we love and worship the monarchy,” Mr. Surachai said in a two-hour interview here. He and his colleagues showed a reporter around the war room and an adjacent space that contained computers seized as evidence from suspects charged with insulting the monarchy. It was the first visit by a journalist to the facilities.

Photography was not allowed.

The visit offered insights into the scale of the government’s battle against online skeptics of the monarchy. But it also highlighted the difficulties of determining what exactly constitutes an insult, a point emphasized by those in Thailand who say the campaign against lèse-majesté is impinging on civil liberties.

Many governments, notably those of China and Singapore, have over the years tried to control the flow of information on the Internet. But perhaps nowhere else is the mission so explicit and single-minded as in Thailand.

Technicians in the war room have blocked 70,000 Internet pages over the past four years, and the vast majority — about 60,000 — were banned for insults to the monarchy, according to Mr. Surachai. (Most of the other pages were blocked for pornography.) Each blocked page requires a court order, a request that judges have never turned down, Mr. Surachai said.

Because the monarchy remains a taboo subject in Thailand and is often discussed elliptically, the motives of those who attack the royal family remain largely a matter of speculation. After his six decades on the throne, public protests against the king are unheard of in Thailand. And not even the most strident anti-establishment protesters would openly call themselves republicans.

But the Internet is where ancient mores of deference for the royal family collide with the irreverence and informality of the Facebook generation.

While Thais may be afraid to rebel against accepted orthodoxies in public, they unleash caustic criticisms with gusto onto the Internet, often anonymously.

Mr. Surachai said the number of pages with anti-monarchy sentiments had increased sharply after the September 2006 military coup. The coup cleaved deep divisions in Thai society and prompted the creation of the “Red Shirts,” a movement that opposed the military’s intervention in politics and supported the deposed prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

To many outsiders, Thailand is a fun-loving, freewheeling country where the rule of law often bends like a reed in the wind. But the “institution,” as the monarchy is often called here, is a bold-faced asterisk to the country’s anything-goes ethos. Many Thais lose their sense of humor when it comes to defending the king.

Anxiety is rising about the health of King Bhumibol, who turns 84 years old this December. The king has spent the past two years in the hospital, and his public appearances have become more rare.

Anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir apparent or regent” can be sentenced to prison terms of as long as 15 years under Thai law. In addition, the country’s Computer Crimes Act, which was passed by a military-installed government in 2007, calls for prison terms of as long as five years for the digital dissemination of information that threatens the security of the country or violates the “peace and concord or good morals of the people.”

Some cases of lèse-majesté are clear-cut, Mr. Surachai said. He does not hesitate to block a Web page that displays a picture of the king with a foot above his head, a grave insult. Also an obvious offense, Mr. Surachai said, is the practice of using a very informal pronoun before the king’s name, one of the many subtleties of the Thai language that are lost in translation.

But often the hunt for royal insults is more subtle. “They usually post metaphors,” Mr. Surachai said of suspected offenders. “They have their own code words.”

The government has increased the budget for the war room, and staff levels will soon increase to allow for a 24-hour operation. Many lèse-majesté comments are posted after midnight and in the early hours before dawn, technicians in the war room say.

Yet the campaign against royal insults, which some compare to a witch hunt, worries many Thais, including groups of writers, academics and artists who say the lèse-majesté law is easily abused.

In August a group of 112 professors, both Thai and foreign, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra that said the crackdown threatened “the future of democracy in Thailand.”

The Bangkok Post, an English-language daily, said in a recent editorial that the use of the Computer Crimes Act was out of hand. “The act has been used to shut down or block tens of thousands of websites without clear proof of wrongdoing being furnished,” the newspaper said. “It seems extremely unlikely that all of these websites were in violation of the lese majeste laws.”

One case in particular has attracted attention. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, former webmaster of a popular Thai Web site, Prachathai, is on trial over comments that were posted on the site and were deemed insulting to the monarchy. Ms. Chiranuch told the court that she regularly read through the thousands of items posted daily on the message board and deleted potentially offensive comments when she found them. Prosecutors in the case say she did not act quickly enough.

The trial caught the attention of the world’s largest Internet companies including eBay, Google and Yahoo. An industry association co-founded by those companies, the Asia Internet Coalition, released a statement last month, saying that enforcement of the Computer Crimes Act could result in global Web companies’ refusing to serve customers in Thailand.

“By holding an intermediary liable for the actions of its users, this case could set a dangerous precedent and have a significant long-term impact on Thailand’s economy,” the statement said.

In the war room, the technicians say they are being pressured from all sides. Their office receives anywhere from 20 to 100 e-mailed complaints a day. Like Thai society itself, the e-mails are split between supporters and detractors of the crackdown.

Some defenders of the monarchy take extreme positions. Earlier this year, a woman from northern Thailand, Fahngai Khamasoke, gathered 130,000 signatures for a campaign to have democracy in its current form scrapped in Thailand and replaced by a “good and moral” government overseen by the king.

Ms. Fahngai is filled with emotion when discussing her campaign. “We have seen how much the king has sacrificed for us,” she said in an interview. “We have a spiritual love for him. It’s like he’s a god.”

On the other side of the spectrum are those whose answer to the restrictive laws is to mock them. A special 24-hour call center set up by the government in 2009 to handle reports of Internet abuse receives dozens of calls a day.

But many are frivolous.

“Ninety percent are prank calls,” said Nut Payongsri, a technician in the war room.

Mr. Surachai, the head of the war room, says he often looks for guidance from his superiors. He uses a “spider,” a specialized computer program that trolls the Internet and flags potentially offensive content. He then often consults with a special military unit attached to the king’s palace to inquire about the veracity of some Internet postings.

“Once senior officials consider a case and decide to block, we have to follow them,” Mr. Surachai said.

At the entrance to the war room Mr. Surachai has placed a wooden statue of an ancient Chinese warrior menacingly brandishing a weapon that looks like a cross between a cleaver and a sword.

The statue, which represents Guan Yu, a character in the Chinese epic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” seems to embody the spirit of Mr. Surachai’s mission as the defender of the monarchy. The figure represents loyalty and honesty, Mr. Surachai said. It also could represent a soldier caught in the crossfire of a conflicted society.

“Many people refuse to do this job,” Mr. Surachai said. “Right or wrong — either way we will be blamed.”

-- New York Times 2011-10-03

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